Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has drawn heat for looking perpetually angry. He might have been excused for wearing that expression yesterday. The announcement that Belinda Stronach was jumping from his party to the Liberals, two days before tomorrow's crucial vote on the budget, was a blow to the solar plexus. It had ramifications not just for the vote, which is now more likely to go the government's way, but for the way people view the Conservative Party.
Ms. Stronach jumped into politics early last year to run against Mr. Harper for the Conservative leadership. She has clearly been a quick study. At yesterday's press conference, she was a model of political control, sticking to her rehearsed messages, including her repeated expression of devotion to public service. Supporters and critics will have their own takes on why the MP for Newmarket-Aurora (just outside Toronto) decided to offer her services to Paul Martin's Liberals. It may be, to put the noblest construction on it, that she could not support defeating the government if it meant watching the budget die and seeing her party beholden to the separatist Bloc Québécois, which stands to increase its seat count in an election. Mr. Harper expressed a different view yesterday. He painted her as a renegade with "no grand principle . . . just ambition."
Mr. Martin, unable to believe his luck, rewarded whatever ambition Ms. Stronach may have had; she will take over as Minister of Human Resources Development. Yet it is difficult to read her move as purely one of self-interest, since, if her ultimate goal is party leadership, she would arguably have had a better shot among the Conservatives than among the Liberals. Of course, even that shot would have depended on the Conservatives preferring a moderate candidate.
The greater consequence is for theparty. Rightly or wrongly, Ms. Stronach's decision implies that a moderate Tory can't find a comfortable place among Mr. Harper's Conservatives. If that message were to take hold, it would damage the party's chances in Ontario. Mr. Harper worked yesterday to deflect this view, insisting that the only effect on Ontario was to make it harder for Ms. Stronach to get elected and that the party was better off without a candidate who wasn't committed to a Conservative victory. "I've got to say I have a sense of relief," he said. ". . . I could see this coming."
Certainly Ms. Stronach made no secret of her struggle within the party. She supports same-sex marriage, and said on May 2 that forcing an election before the budget was passed could backfire on the Conservatives. She has also been less than a team player. There may be no I in team, but there is one in Belinda.
But Mr. Harper is being disingenuous or self-deluding. It was in his interest, and his party's, to have a moderate fighting from within rather than jumping ship. Mr. Harper himself, reading the political winds, had tacked in a more moderate policy direction since his party's convention two months ago. Now he finds the wind against him once more.
The defection may also play badly among western Conservatives, who have struggled for years for a chance to hold the reins in Ottawa and who may paint Ms. Stronach's move as one more snub of the West by Central Canada. They got nowhere in Ontario as the Reform Party in 1997. Their hoped-for surge as the Alliance under Stockwell Day in 2000 proved a disappointment. They couldn't knock off the Liberals last June, even with a united Conservative Party, a new leader who wasn't burdened by Mr. Day's social-conservative baggage, and a Liberal Party wounded by the Auditor-General's report on the sponsorship scandal. Now Ms. Stronach has, with one blow, effectively painted the party as inhospitable and done her best to postpone an election in which the Conservatives might have had a fighting chance at a minority government.
But to paint this as a slap at the West or, a more extreme possibility, as an argument for more western firewalls against Ottawa -- Mr. Harper's old rallying cry -- would put too much weight on the defection of a single MP. The Conservative Party's next move should be to make as clear as it can that there is a place in its ranks for those at all points on the conservative spectrum -- Albertans, Ontarians, all other Canadians.
There will be an election soon enough -- if not immediately, then right after Mr. Justice John Gomery reports -- and the party will have its chance to argue that Ms. Stronach's defection says more about her than about those she left. For now, Mr. Harper will have a slightly tougher time coaxing a smile onto his face.